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Maureen Moynihan

Torturous Laughter: Expression and Repression of Horror

in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Mark of the Beast”

Laughter is never innocent. It has form and purpose and certainly power. Recently, critics

have devoted hundreds of articles and books to the topic of laughter and the related subject of

humor, but contemporary studies of laughter often fail to consider examples in the horror genre.

This oversight makes sense in that many are eager to study comedy and more pleasant texts. Few

would grudge them room to study such appropriate material. However, one must look to critics

and theorists confronting horror to find mention of laughter that coexists with fear and even

serves a valuable function in decoding horror texts. For the purposes of discussing laughter and

horror, I have isolated a single case of a 19th century writer describing what many current

theorists overlook, finding it exemplary in its detail, ambiguity, and ethical resonance.

Though existing theories of laughter’s form and function indicate it should break the

finely tuned tension appreciated by aficionados of classic horror, the H.P. Lovecraft-approved

Rudyard Kipling story, “The Mark of the Beast” (1890) describes a fit of laughter as a horror on

par with native revolt, supernatural revenge, and torture. Seen through the complementary lenses

of humor studies and the psychoanalytic work of Julia Kristeva, the layers of expectations within

the production of laughter offer an exemplary point of entry for inquiry as a second climax in the

story, perhaps more important than the rescue of the victim’s soul. By drawing a broader conflict

down to the scale of individual men, Kipling makes intimate a conflict of national proportions

and undermines personal and national assumptions of integrity and superiority on which the
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colonizer’s role in that conflict has been justified.

The interpretation of laughter is far from straightforward, although it occurs on a regular

basis in ordinary communication. As a sign, laughter’s meaning depends particularly heavily on

context and intonation since it lacks a precise denotative meaning. It has a referent, but it refers

not to an object but to a quality or relationship compared to the laughing individual’s

expectations. In order to pin down laughter by its causes, recent interdisciplinary work in humor

studies takes on laughter in the general terms of superiority, incongruity, and relief. The

fundamental concepts of these theories deal respectively with A) the relative status of the persons

involved (superiority to inferiority), B) the gap between the event and the observer’s

expectations (incongruity), and C) finally with the event causing a shift from tension to relief.

All three traditional theories depend on social and often unconscious expectations. The extensive

history of assertions of the primacy of a particular factor has been well reviewed by scholars

such as Dr. Linda Houts-Smith, whose research incorporating these views I will touch on later.

So, why Kipling? Certainly not for a shortage of examples of laughter in horror texts,

though they fall into a number of categories from a reaction to witty banter in a casual

conversation to the triumphant cackle of the villain, but much of the laughter within horror texts

operates in tandem with humor and is treated as secondary. Not only has the narrator highlighted

laughter as a moment of horror in this text, the duality of Kipling’s perspective on India

complicates its interpretation. As Salman Rushdie explained, “There will always be plenty in

Kipling that I will find difficult to forgive; but there is also enough truth in these stories to make

them impossible to ignore” (80). Rushdie may not look to “The Mark of the Beast” as a model,

but his analysis focuses on such glimpses at the limits of the colonizers’ power and control. On

the topic of assumptions, ignorance, and the breaching of supposedly firm boundaries, fellow
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cultural critic Edward Said cites Kipling as a preeminent observer of the East-West chain of

being, aligning the rungs of the medieval chain of being with the hierarchy of British

Commonwealth (45). Any failure of its components to support the others threatens chaos, a

statement which should recall Lovecraft’s words on cosmic terror, which entails “a malign and

particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard

against the assaults of chaos” and daemons (Lovecraft 2).

Where the conflict begins is difficult to discern, short of going back to the initial violence

of the colonial project. The “Catch’em Alive-O’s” at the party in the opening scene have political

dominion but not the moral superiority they assume (Kipling 307). The current breach of cultural

boundaries, Fleete’s drunken defilement of a statue of the monkey god Hanuman serves as a

catalyst. Having made “the mark of the beast,” a beastlike leper marks him in reply. The curse

transforms him into a beast by the gradual erosion of his humanity (civility, rationality, identity,

and ultimately his soul). To rescue the civilized self, the British officer Strickland and the

narrator commit wordlessly to torture unfit to be printed of the leper who conveyed the curse

(316). Once the leper’s speaks, they end the torture and demand him to end the curse. He clothes

himself for the first time to cover his wounds and leaves, never to be seen again. Seeking his

speech, his humanity, two British men abandon language and go straight to force, only using

language to make their request once they are both returned to language. It is not to be the last of

their wordless communications.

The evidence of the event vanishes mysteriously, except in the home and memories of the

perpetrators. Strickland even begins to doubt their experience before Fleete’s entrance. The

narrator omits any verbal response and instead makes note of sensory evidence: “The red-hot

gun-barrel had fallen on the floor and was singeing the carpet. The smell was entirely real”
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(316). The return of the victim to the scene of the torture by the light of the next day offers a

perspective in stark contrast to that grim description:

One other curious thing happened which frightened me as much as anything in the

night’s work. When Fleet was dressed he came into the dining-room and sniffed.

He had a quaint trick of moving his nose when he sniffed. ‘Horrid doggy smell,

here,’ said he. ‘You should really keep those terriers of yours in better order. Try

sulphur, Strick.’

But Strickland did not answer. He caught hold of the back of a chair, and,

without warning, went into an amazing fit of hysterics. It is terrible to see a strong

man overtaken with hysteria. Then it struck me that we had fought for Fleete’s

soul with the silver man in that room, and that we had disgraced ourselves as

Englishmen for ever, and I laughed and gasped and gurgled just as shamefully as

Strickland, while Fleete thought that we had both gone mad. We never told him

what we had done. (317)

At what are they laughing? At Fleete for his ignorance? At his banal comment for how far

it falls from the truth? Or instead for how close it comes? Or perhaps the laughter is inspired by

the deeper, ironic implications, considering the “beasts” involved? Certainly the advice to keep

the dogs in line with sulfur (brimstone) has ringing implications for both Strickland’s control of

the natives and of his fellow officers in a land beyond the reach of Divine Providence (307). One

thing is certain: when they hear Fleete’s comment, the hellish night closes with an unexpectedly

mild chastisement.

This response has much to do with relief: emotional tension has built up as the two men

realize how far they have, so to speak, fallen on that chain of being. When confronted with
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evidence grossly misinterpreted by Fleete, they are prompted to laughter rather than awe. Fear

and humor stem from the same source: social values and limits. Both screams and laughter are

visceral responses resulting from an assessment of a situation. The cognitive aspects, while often

unconscious, are integral in its interpretation after the fact. Answering “Why do they laugh?”

with only “Because it makes them feel better” is like asking “Why did the chicken cross the

road?” without looking at the either side. Why not stay put? Why laugh then? Due to the

cognitive component, laughter highlights conflicts between its context and the laughing subject’s

implicit values and assumptions of the status quo.

In light of this similarity between screams and laughter, it is little surprise that the first

laughter in horror appears in the work of a scholar intent on the interactions of physical and

psychological experience. In Power of Horror, Kristeva refers to laughter as a means of “placing

or displacing abjection” (8). For Kristeva, to laugh ejects the abject and thus aids in the

establishment of personal identity. True to her visceral style, the physiological explanations and

psychological combine: the body’s convulsion becomes the emotional equivalent of vomiting.

Laughter highlights incongruity, the difference between the real and the desired. Interpreted in

terms of abjection, laughter indicates a break in the desired boundaries of I versus not-I.

In Kristeva’s model, the laughter rejects the part of the narrator’s identity that permitted

him and Strickland to go to the extreme of torture for the sake of a guilty countryman--the beast

within. The abject posits a “threat […] beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the

thinkable” but which fascinates nevertheless (Kristeva 1). In particular, this involves “those

fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal” including hostility (12-13). The title

declares the abject in the story, but readers may not realize they will find it within the familiar

“I.” Though abjection is productive force, excising the abject creates and establishes an identity
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by contrast with the not-I (45). The non-hysteric succeeds in displacing the abject well enough to

feel secure that the boundaries are unbroken. Conversely, the hysterical subject recognizes the

permeability of the self and loses its grip on its identity. The narrator’s continued anxiety puts

him in the category of hysteric at least in so far as the evidence prohibits recovery the identity

others assume of him. But this explanation, however plausible, is unsatisfying. Still, why laugh

rather than cry or scream? Laughter as a form of relief only establishes part of its function.

Despite a long history dating back to antiquity, the superiority theory has recently been

championed by professor of Law F. H. Buckley. The popularity superiority may stem from the

experience of those left out or laughed at, since it assumes those laughing are sharing in triumph

over an inferior other. The superiority theory does focus on judgment, but it creates a knot when

applied to Strickland and narrator. The narrator laughs in part at himself because he recognizes

his inferiority in relative to an expected standard of behavior. In the superiority model, that

explanation should be impossible. As Buckley puts it, “He might be an inferior brute, but he can

never think himself so when he laughs” (37). In contrast to Buckley’s exclusively humorous

laughter, an explanation of hysterical laughter seems dependent on flexibility in the definition of

superiority, at least if one expects to maintain superiority’s superiority.

Superiority in the case of the narrator bleeds into the analysis of the incongruity, since

narrator’s self-image proves incongruous with his behavior and accepted standards. Incongruity

supporter Immanuel Kant does allow for laughing at one’s own errors (Houts-Smith 7). Kant’s

view still incorporates relief, but emphasizes the contrast of expectation and reality. Laughter

results when “our expectations evaporate into uselessness” (7). For the narrator, this has dire

rather than humorous results. In the fall from his position in the social order, he has seen the lie

of the hierarchy. He has witnessed the perceived order and stability of the boundary between
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West and East, the basis for his national and personal identity, literally dissolve at a touch.

Although relief and superiority are here at work, incongruity appears to be essential to the

triggering of laughter, with the other two providing value and energy but not comprising the

“laughable” itself, to borrow linguist Gail Jefferson’s term. Fellow linguistic scholar Houts-

Smith’s confirms, finding “differences in experiences, perceptions, and expectations” provoke

both humorous laughter and nervous laughter (3). Although the research findings are limited to

conversations, her analysis resonates with the buzzwords of both literary theory and humor

studies to combine the various traditional theories: “The tension is primarily the differentiation

of reality from unreality as it relates to the difference between self and other” (27). In this case,

the narrator sees his reality replaced by a harsher world and self-image, only to find that the

world around him has not changed. His perception was the illusion, but that illusion still exists

for others, such as Fleete. His articulation of his laughter reveals his altered perspective.

In terms of the theories discussed, the structure of his laughter appears congruent with

several elements of the predominant theories considered in humor studies. The laughter responds

to Fleete’s statement in the context, but excludes him from explanation. The narrator and reader

are superior in knowledge in respect to Fleete, aware of the incongruity of the explanation, but

also relieved at the outcome of the incident. Most importantly, the components establish that the

other side of the cognitive conflict that caused the laughter is an incongruity between the “White

Man” and the narrator’s transformed self-image. He recognizes consciously what Edward Said

asserts: “Behind the White Man’s mask of amiable leadership there is always the express

willingness to use force, to kill and be killed. What dignifies his mission is some sense of

intellectual dedication” (Said 226). Indeed, the horror of “shamefully” dissolving into hysterics

lies precisely in his loss justification and dignity. The “irreducible distance” between the two
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cultures is illusion; “the line of tension” between White and Oriental must be reestablished (228).

In Kristeva’s terms, Strickland succeeds in expressing the abject, returning to Church and

society. More conscious of the dissolution of these definitions, the narrator fails to regain the

integrity of his self definition as congruent with the expectations of his society.

In Kipling’s tale, the nostalgic portrait of the colonial experience of the colonizer as an

indolent, civilized lifestyle beside the primitive, exotic world of the East festers after a physical

breach of cultural boundaries. Intentionally or not, the story expresses what the status quo wants

to repress--the violence of the colonial project and the false premise of the inherent civility of

Western man. The struggle of wills between torturers and victim succeeds in returning life and

“soul” to one “beast,” but damns the Englishmen for hypocrites and beasts themselves. When the

narrator comprehends the cost of his actions, the rationale of the colonial project collapses. Its

fictional representatives fail the test, but the narrator remains incapable of confessing and atoning

because he cannot be taken seriously.

Kipling ends this horror tale with the echoes of this torturous laughter in the memory of

the narrator. The narrator’s confession exposes the underside of his laughter, the unthinkable

reality of his experience. He cannot convince his readers of the unthinkable possibility of an

alternate power, but perhaps he can expose readers to their animal capacity for brutality,

regardless of their assumptions of civility. Explaining the target of his laughter, he shows its

components in slow motion, so to speak, at the speed of contemplation and reason rather than

instinct. By this rhetorical delay, the story becomes horrible, not in spite of, but because of the

laughter’s wordless judgment on the civilized façade of authority and self-control. By exposing

the reader to the cognitive dissonance that produced the laughter, he cracks the assumed integrity

of that identity.
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Works Cited

Buckley, F. H. The Morality of Laughter. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2003.

Houts-Smith, Linda. “Funny Ha-Ha or Funny Strange: The Structure and Meaning of Laughter

in Conversation.” Diss. U. North Dakota, 2007.

Kipling, Rudyard. “The Mark of the Beast.” The World’s Greatest Horror Stories. Eds. Stephen

Jones & Dave Carson. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004: 306-317.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York:

Columbia UP, 1982.

Lovecraft, H. P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. (1927, 1933-1935)

Rushdie, Salman. “Kipling.” Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991. London:

Granta Books, 1991: 74-80.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism: 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.